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Neighbors speak up and they get results

As a young woman, Willie Knowles says she was impressed by the work of her grandfather, Charlie Hart, and many other community elders in the tiny, predominantly black neighborhood just north of Main Street.

They were a group of hardworking property and business owners who desperately wanted to make the tranquil community a better place, Knowles said.

When the city considered building a center to recycle yard waste in the community last year, Knowles and many other residents carried on the tradition of their ancestors. They signed a petition and showed up in force at City Hall to protest the proposal, sparking a dialogue with the city that some said is proving beneficial for both sides.

Some residents and city staff started the Eureka Task Force to address concerns about neighborhood upkeep and other services that residents said had been overlooked. The monthly meetings also have given the city a chance to get reacquainted with one of its older neighborhoods.

"We don't speak up very often, but we all got together to go downtown and let them know we didn't want that recycling plant in our neighborhood," Knowles said. "It seems like they listened."

Last year, the City Commission approved $270,000 to buy 5 acres of land for a city recycling center and yard-waste mulch site. At a commission meeting in February, public works director Bob Brotherton said the city had started negotiations with the Coca-Cola Corp. about purchasing or leasing some of the company's land for the project.

In return, the company said it wanted the city to fix San Christopher Drive, where Coca-Cola is located. Money for that project had been budgeted through the county's 1-cent sales tax. By April, a site plan had been developed and the commission authorized lease negotiations to begin.

It looked like a plan. But there was one problem: Nobody asked the residents what they thought.

Last May, the Rev. Clem Bell of Shiloh Baptist Church put together a petition, signed by almost 100 people, saying residents were staunchly opposed to the plant, citing issues such as noise, odor and children's safety. With the city's sewer treatment plant already in their back yards, residents said adding a recycling plant without consulting them was further insult.

"We are disadvantaged with the existing sewer plant in the immediate neighborhood," the petition read. "PLEASE DO NOT MAKE US SUFFER MORE!"

Some residents said that for a group that is rarely seen or heard from, the sheer force of their numbers and their conviction shocked the city into taking action. Plans for the recycling center have been postponed, City Manager John Lawrence said. But when and if it is built, he said, it won't be in that neighborhood.

"We wanted to make it clear that we were not against the city building a recycling plant _ we just didn't want it where they wanted to build it," Bell said. "There are studies showing that all around the country, plants like these that cause a sour smell and produce a certain amount of pollution are usually put in black areas."

Brotherton and Lawrence said the site was one of only a few available. "We looked at various sites. There aren't that may sites in Dunedin, and this was just one of several alternatives recommended," Brotherton said.

One year later, Bell said progress with the task force has been slow, but he is hopeful about what already has been accomplished. Knowles, also a task force member, is optimistic, too. But she said she wonders if the task force has outlived its usefulness, noting that only two residents and no city representatives came to a meeting scheduled a week ago.

"These meetings are not in vain. If it wasn't for the meetings, we wouldn't have some of the things we've gotten," Bell said. "But it's going to take some time."

Almost immediately, the city took care of complaints about improper trash pickup, tree trimming and street sweeping, Campbell said. The city also helped the group apply for more than $300,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds for drainage problems and neighborhood beautification.

"The improvements were mainly service-oriented types of things. In some cases, it was just a matter of the residents needing to know which departments to talk to to get things done," said Kevin Campbell, community services director.

Lawrence admitted that not getting residents involved in the initial planning process was a mistake. He said the city also is hoping to develop a comprehensive "prototype neighborhood plan" for overall improvements.

"In addition to the immediate physical improvements, we're also working with Coca-Cola about jobs for residents and maybe having the neighborhood connected more to downtown because it's so close," Lawrence said. "We're considering this a mini-comprehensive plan, and if it works out, we might try it in other neighborhoods as well."

Knowles worried that interest is waning.

"When we first started the city was more responsive. Now it seems like things have gotten more lax," Knowles said. "I feel like we're repeating a lot of the same things over and over."

Campbell said the city still is committed to helping the neighborhood and that a scheduling error prevented him from coming to the meeting. Aside from the needed physical improvements, the city also helped organize a crime watch program, Campbell said.

"I'm not sure where it's going. We have gotten some things accomplished," Campbell said. "We've educated people on how to get action, what departments they need to contact when they have a problem. Their services have been upgraded."

The core group of people who have faithfully attended the meetings said their next biggest challenge is making sure their neighbors understand why they should become involved.

"I love Dunedin. My roots are here, and I think this neighborhood can be a marvelous place," Knowles said. "I'm committed to seeing some changes made and I know a lot of other people are too. We just have to get together and do it."

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